My mother, like her siblings, was a devoted Catholic. My father believed in God, but not a particular religion. In fact I suspect that he must have had some kind of bad experience with a group during his youth because of comments that he made about overly evangelical groups. Nonetheless, he encouraged my mother to practice her faith by raising my brothers and me in the Catholic church. He seemed to appreciate her insistence on following the the dictums of her beliefs even to point of signing a pledge upon his marriage to allow her to teach us about Catholicism from the time of our births.
My father never went to church with us on Sundays nor did he have much to say about God or faith or any particular religion but he was a good man who loved as fiercely as any of the most religious people that I have ever known, maybe even a bit more unconditionally. He was not prone to judge, but rather to accept people just as they happened to be. I never heard him cuss or demean another person with his words. He quietly did good deeds without boasting. He was a humble man who was devoted to his family.
My mother was a living saint. She only missed Sunday mass if she was sick. She read her Bible daily and lived the kind of life that Jesus instructed us to follow. She sacrificed for my brothers and me and for other people for all of her adult life. She found so much solace in God that she sometimes cried tears of joy when describing how she felt about her faith. Nonetheless she did not believe that it was her place or her duty to tell others how and what they must believe. She was best friends with a Jewish woman and often noted how beautiful that religion is.
My mother took my brothers and me to church, sent us to Catholic school and spoke of her own beliefs. She was such a pillar of faith and service to our Catholic community that she received a papal blessing from Pope John XXII. It was one of her most treasured moments in life. In spite of her own devotion she was quite liberal in believing that ultimately my brothers and I would have to choose our own paths in determining what our respective thoughts on religion would be. She often praised the many different ways that we humans have attempted to determine the existence of a deity.
I ended up following my Catholic faith for a lifetime. One of my brothers became a Baptist. The third brother is agnostic, believing that there may be some kind of God but not feeling drawn toward a particular kind of religion. Mama was fine with all of our choices. She believed that what mattered most was how we treated our fellow humans and in many ways it was in fact my agnostic brother who followed the most Christlike way of living.
I often think of the irony of having a mother who was at once a diligent follower of Catholic teaching and at the same time so very liberal about accepting each person’s right to form his/her own beliefs. She reminded us all of the time that Jesus befriended people who were spurned by the rest of society in his time. She felt that his message could be distilled into the idea that what matters most is loving our fellow humans.
I’ve gone back and forth in my own religious journey. I was not much of a fan of the somewhat conservative teachings of Pope Benedict, but whenever he spoke of migrant people I found the essence of the Catholic faith that had always stood out for me. He was adamant in his belief that we are one human family. He once asserted that, “The parents of Jesus had to flee their own land and take refuge in Egypt, in order to save the life of their child: the Messiah, the son of God, was a refugee,” He believed that it was our duty to welcome and minister to those who flee from horrific conditions to save their families. It is what Jesus would expect us to do.
Somehow of all of the things that Pope Benedict said during his lifetime that one sentence seemed to encapsulate the heart of teachings that I learned from my church, from my mother and even from my father. It has fashioned my relationships with people, my politics, and my desire to lead a purpose driven life. It has made me a nonjudgemental person and it has helped me to see the beauty of humanity.
Our present Pope Francis has echoed the mandate to keep our hearts and our borders open to people fleeing from war and injustice. On a recent visit to Africa he enjoined us to remember our duty to speak out whenever we see others being abused, saying ” we cannot remain neutral before the pain caused by acts of injustice and violence. To violate the fundamental rights of any woman or man is an offense against Christ.”
I sometimes think that many organized religions and those who belong to them have lost their way. As has too often been the case throughout history people have politicized religion as a cudgel to force their beliefs on others. It has caused much suffering which may have been my father’s rationale for abandoning it. The rules have often hurt as much as helped. Perhaps it’s time that we all step back and consider the simple idea proposed by Pope Benedict that we are indeed one human family. Then it will make perfect sense to each of us that our goal should not be to judge or inflict pain but rather to unite against injustice and violence wherever it may be. It does not take participation in a formal religion to be a very good person. My mother and father both seemed to understand that quite well.